Make your Smile Sparkle! Debunking Myths and Exploring How to Whiten Your Teeth Safely

Written by Dr. Laura Ellefson Dec 6 • 5 minute read

The holiday season is upon us, and everyone wants to flaunt their brightest smiles during festive gatherings. Let’s dive into the world of teeth whitening, dispelling myths and shedding light on the benefits of achieving a dazzling smile at home. Discover the secrets to a safe and radiant holiday sparkle that will leave you feeling confident and ready to embrace the festivities.

First, stains on your teeth can be either intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic stains are deeper and lie on the dentin, the layer underneath your enamel. Extrinsic stains are on the outer surface of your enamel and are mainly caused by certain foods and beverages such as red wine, or smoking. To learn more, read Dr. Kasia’s latest blog on how to sip wine wisely! In this blog we’ll just talk about whitening the extrinsic (surface) stains. 

There are 3 ways to whiten teeth:

1.  Professional In-Office Treatments: Very effective at least initially, but inconsistent reports on how long the results last and how much tooth sensitivity occurs. And it’s the most expensive option.

2.  Professional Take-Home: Either disposable or customized trays (they look like clear retainers  - in fact, if you already have Invisalign retainers you CAN use them as your whitening trays!) with peroxide gels available in different concentrations.

3.  Over-the-Counter (OTC): A quick word about “whitening toothpastes” – they may improve the appearance of surface stains because they are abrasive, so they scrub away the stains, but that also means they can damage your enamel (see more on this below). Also, some whitening toothpastes contain hydrogen peroxide, which is harmless, but the peroxide needs to be in contact with your teeth for an extended period of time to work, not just the couple minutes it takes you to brush. There are also OTC whitening strips that won’t necessarily damage your enamel if used correctly, but they generally have a lower concentration of peroxides. The whitening strips are difficult to fit into crowded areas and any overlapped teeth so the whitening may not be very consistent. So, depending on which strip kit you buy, it may not give you the results you’re expecting.

Myth Busting:

1. Whitening Harms Enamel: Not if done right! Teeth whitening products utilize 2 different mechanisms to brighten smiles, primarily peroxides or abrasives. Peroxides, such as hydrogen peroxide and carbamide peroxide, are the key ingredients in many products. They work by breaking down into oxygen radicals, which then penetrate the enamel and dentin to break apart and remove stains. Professional dental treatments often use higher concentrations, while over-the-counter products maintain lower levels. When properly formulated they do not compromise enamel integrity and are generally safe for tooth enamel. It is still important to follow the instructions carefully to prevent potential side effects like tooth sensitivity.

However, abrasive agents, like silica, baking soda, and activated charcoal, work by physically scrubbing away surface stains. A word of caution: while seeming to whiten our teeth, either long-term or aggressive use can lead to enamel wear and damage over time. As the enamel thins the more yellow dentin layer of tooth shows through and our teeth will look more yellow than before! Baking soda is the least abrasive material and can be safe on enamel if used in an ADA approved toothpaste that also contains fluoride to protect against cavities. Here is a helpful chart of toothpastes listed by abrasiveness on a scale from low to harmfully high - which one do you use?

2. At-Home Whitening is Ineffective: Not necessarily! The professionally dispensed take-home teeth whitening products have come a long way. The formulations now often incorporate advanced technologies, such as improved peroxide delivery systems and enamel-safe ingredients, ensuring effective stain removal without causing harm to the teeth.

3. Whitening Hurts: It doesn’t have to! Tooth sensitivity is the most common side effect of whitening and it is mostly short-lived and goes away on its own without causing any damage to the nerve endings inside the tooth. The usual causes of sensitivity are either prolonged exposure to the peroxides or very high concentrations of them. To help prevent sensitivity, ask your dentist to help you choose a product that is right for you. 

At Santa Rosa Dentistry we offer a take-home peroxide gel that contains anti-sensitivity agents fluoride and potassium nitrate (also found in Sensodyne toothpaste).  Our patients then have 2 options for take-home whitening: The first is a 10-day kit of single-use trays where the whitening gel is already loaded in each tray. This is most similar to OTC strips, but the peroxide is at a professional concentration. The second option is a set of reusable customized trays made from a digital model of your teeth (or your own Invisalign retainers) and used with a set of gel syringes that we’ll teach you how to use at home. The gel syringes contain 10% carbamide peroxide, which is a moderate concentration that reduces the risk of sensitivity while still being effective. This option provides customizable treatment plans, allowing patients to tailor the process to their preferences and sensitivity levels. This flexibility ensures a more personalized and comfortable whitening experience.

Benefits of Teeth Whitening:

1.   Boosted Confidence: Your smile reflects your self-image. Whitening your teeth can positively influence how you perceive yourself, creating a mental shift towards more confidence. People are naturally drawn to those who exude confidence, and an enhanced smile can contribute to more positive social interactions.

2.   Improved Oral Hygiene: Maintaining a white smile requires commitment to regular brushing and flossing, which is crucial for removing plaque and preventing stains from building-up. Individuals undergoing teeth whitening treatments are more likely to establish and adhere to a consistent hygiene routine to preserve their results.

3. Improved Gum Health: Some studies (like this one) have shown decreased plaque build-up with regular use of whitening products. The carbamide or hydrogen peroxide can actually kill some of the bacteria responsible for gingivitis. 

Please talk with us about which whitening option might be best for you. There are a lot of options out there so the more you know the better you can stay safe and healthy. Get ready to showcase your confident, luminous smile and make this holiday season one to remember!



About the Author:

Dr. Laura Ellefson graduated from Bates University with a degree in Biology and earned her dental degree from Tufts University of Dental Medicine in 2012. She practices dentistry in Santa Rosa, CA.


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Dr. Laura Ellefson & Dr. Kasia Marelich

We are dedicated to excellence in family and cosmetic dentistry, specifically prevention, crown & bridge, veneers, implants and teeth whitening. Located in Santa Rosa, California, the office serves patients throughout Sonoma County including neighboring cities such as Healdsburg, Windsor, Sebastopol, Rohnert Park and Petaluma.

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